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My Perspective on Remote Work

remote workThe proclamation by Marissa Mayer last month, informing Yahoo employees that working from home is no longer an option, really seemed to bring an important conversation front and center.

The memo that started this firestorm stated in part –

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices… We need to be one Yahoo! and that starts with physically being together.”

I’ve worn a lot of hats over the years.  In each instance, there has been a common goal:  Be as successful as possible.  Being “successful” is unique to every situation so that’s why I include “as possible”.  But when you add happiness to the equation, what does that mean?

If you are in a job where you are rapidly iterating a product and continuously collaborating with others on your team, being face-to-face or side-by-side with your teammates will provide an opportunity to be as successful as possible.  Being collocated is no guarantee for success but being distributed (dislocated) is going to certainly limit your chances.  Leaders should focus actions more on making their companies, projects, or products successful and less on trying to make employees or teammates happy.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t be empathetic to the needs of others.  I’m just saying there comes a point when you need to look at the costs and the benefits of remote work.  If the team is not realizing its potential, because one or more of them are working remotely (because they want to and not because they have to) we have a misalignment of goals.  Why would they sacrifice potential success for their personal comfort?  Well, businesses are trying to find ways to incentivize their employees. They hope that by incentivizing then, they will be happier and more productive.  But see, that is part of the problem. There is a belief that the incentives will make them happy.  Happiness is one of the byproducts of satisfying work, which can be derived from feelings of mastery, autonomy, and purpose (link to talk by Dan Pink).  I believe (in some cases) the work-from-home incentives will have a negative affect.

When companies hire us, they are NOT hiring us to make people’s lives better.  They are hiring us because there is value locked up in these companies and they are unable to produce.  They are hiring us to help them unlock that value.  Period.

What’s one of the first things I would propose if I coached teams at Yahoo? Bring the team together, face-to-face or side-by-side.  The only thing I disagree with in the Yahoo memo experpt  is where it states “…we are all present in our offices…”  I propose they get out of the private offices and into a team space.

Balanced piece about the pros and cons of working at home on Fast Company

Image Credit: Pictofigo

About Derek Huether

I'm Vice President of Enterprise Engagements at LeadingAgile. I'm super focused on results. But I also take the hand waving out of organizational transformations. I come from a traditional PM background but I don't give points for stuff done behind the scenes. The only thing that counts is what you get done and delivered. Author of Zombie Project Management (available on Amazon)

6 Responses to “My Perspective on Remote Work”

  1. March 19, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    This paragraph says it all …

    “If you are in a job where you are rapidly iterating a product and continuously collaborating with others on your team, being face-to-face or side-by-side with your teammates will provide an opportunity to be as successful as possible. Being collocated is no guarantee for success but being distributed (dislocated) is going to certainly limit your chances. Leaders should focus actions more on making their companies, projects, or products successful and less on trying to make employees or teammates happy.”

    I am right there with you, Derek!

    • derekhuether
      March 19, 2013 at 10:23 pm

      So glad you agree! Because I’ve been away coaching and not writing the last few months, I was starting to question if my perspective was shifting. But, I really felt strongly about this. Every time I hear someone say they are going to do more telework, because they think it’s going to make their developers happier, it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me.

  2. March 19, 2013 at 11:16 pm

    Is work someplace we go, or something we do? At Yahoo, it is plainly someplace they go. Consequently, I won’t be applying for any jobs at Yahoo.

    • derekhuether
      March 20, 2013 at 1:31 pm

      Her efforts to make Yahoo more “Google”ish makes more sense now, with the free food and who knows what other perks. She’s trying to make a more collaborative work environment. I think this is good for Yahoo. I think it gives them a chance. Why handicap the company if you don’t have to?

  3. James
    April 4, 2013 at 6:39 am

    I’m sorry but I have to disagree; there are significantly different challenges to overcome when teams are partly or fully remote working. Ignoring these difference and treating remote workers as just office workers without a physical presence will certainly limit your chance of success.

    I’ve worked extensively both for an entirely distributed company (no real physical offices) and large corporate. Collaboration might be easier face to face but so are all the distractions of working in an office. Based on my experiences I see the primary problems for traditional companies moving to more flexible working being last of trust, lack of visibility, and lack of communication channels. All of these can be overcome and there are tangible benefits to both employer and employee.

    In summary I don’t see why not being face to face stunts collaboration, or rather why the opportunity for success is lost. In fact I’d go so far as to say a developer who can’t collaborate remotely is not a good developer, as being able to clearly express your ideas in a non-verbal statement is a key factor in our jobs.

    One final thing: Remote working practices are like Agile, you can’t tell people how to collaborate remotely (oh you must use this tool or that tool but not X) you have to let each team determine its own working practices. If there’s no “buy in” from the team they will simply not communicate rather than poorly communicate with the provided tools.

  4. Matt Lashley
    June 16, 2013 at 11:15 am

    I work in a completely distributed environment. The organization comprises 150+ internal employees with vendors and partners adding 150 – 300 more human resources at any given quarter. The distributed structure has been in place for over seven years,

    Skype, Go To Meeting and Google Hangout substitute for brick and mortar offices, conference rooms and hallways.

    A series of automated data-driven systems enforce production and quality. These systems highlight low performers and high performers. They also allow pinpointing of behaviors to be addressed through training, process modification or further automation.

    I’ve been with the company as a manager for just over a year. The great competitive advantage I see in this model is globalization of the workforce i.e. cost savings in human resource spend.

    Without continuous Investments in data-driven systems, analysis and automation, this type of organization quickly becomes ineffectual.

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